Photos by Gretchen Devine, Stephen Canino
J. Shia grew up with motorcycles, but never saw them as anything special. They were a great way to get around and, eventually, offered a way to pay her bills. “I come from a family where motorcycles are always around,” she said. “My family members were mechanics and metal workers, always working with our hands, and motorcycles were as normal to me as cars.”
With motorcycles always around, it wasn’t long until she started tinkering with them. “When I was a teen,” she continued, “my father started collecting junky bikes. If I had nothing to do, I’d work on them. As a teen I got one of them running, and that was a catalyst to my career.”
She had an entrepreneurial spirit even at a young age, and before long she was doing tire and oil changes for people in her dad’s yard. That escalated into doing modifications. “People would come and show me something,” she told us, “and I’d build it with my own twist. As things developed I slowly became an even better mechanic, giving me more versatility in my ability to build.”
While she’d never viewed bikes as a social thing or knew much about the events and culture surrounding the industry, that all changed when she was invited to Michael Lichter’s Motorcycles as Art Show at Sturgis in 2017.
“That was the first motorcycle event I was invited to,” she said, “and it was the first time I built a bike without a customer. It was a big culture shock. I’ve been working on bikes since I was 16, and then at 22 I finally built a bike for myself, which was mind-blowing and life changing. The shackles were cut. Going to the event and seeing all these other builders creating amazing machines … it changed my view for what I wanted to do for my work. After that show, the floodgates opened for my own expression in motorcycles, and I started building bikes for myself.”
“I went to art school,” she added. “I wanted to be a war photographer. After graduation, I figured there was no way to survive as a traveling war photographer, so I figured I’d keep doing tire and oil changes and be a mechanic. I needed to make a buck and pay my bills, and I can do a tire change real damn quick.”
Along the way she founded Madhouse Motors, a Boston shop that features its own custom show – the Wild Rabbit Moto Show, which garnered enough attention that it appeared in the movie Oil in the Blood.
“The Boston community made it clear they wanted a bike night,” J. Shia said. “We threw a small party a handful of years ago, and my girlfriend had one too many drinks. Her nickname is ‘Bunny,’ and she got a little wild that night. It’s named after her.”
“It’s more party than show,” she continued, “and last year we had 1700 people buy tickets. If you have a bike and you think it’s cool, you can bring it to compete. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first bike or you’re a professional builder.”
What makes J. Shia stand out is her unique, artistic view of bike building. Listening to Tchaikovsky inspires her building, and her current builds are inspired by Swan Lake. “I even took one of my bikes to the SCOPE Art Show in New York City,” she said. “I went solely because I wanted to see how people reacted to seeing a motorcycle at a contemporary art show.”
Asked what she’d say to women thinking about riding or learning to build a bike, she said this: “In general, your gender doesn’t really play a factor in creating a motorcycle. While anatomy may have some differences, when it comes to creating and thinking and welding and designing and riding, your gender won’t stop you from anything. Just do it if you want to do it!”
“I think the future is really bright for women in the industry,” she continued. There’s so much momentum for women right now, and the future looks bright.”